Wolverine Origins. Elektra. Catwoman. Rise of the Silver Surfer. If you really think Josh Trank’s new Fantastic Four is on the same rung of the ladder as these appalling excuses for entertainment, then you should prepare yourself for some serious head-shaking if you decide to read on.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Hi, my name is Owen Hughes and I am a comic book reader. Something that pre Marvel’s film renaissance was something to share with only a select few like-minded friends, not to admit to in public. Well, Batman was fine to confess to. Spider-Man too in some circles. But mention goofy names like Fantastic Four and you were on your own.
Admittedly, I’m not now (nor have I ever particularly been) an avid reader of Marvel comics specifically. I’m more of a DC kind of guy. If that doesn’t make much sense to you, then consider the age-old quote about Marvel heroes being aspirational, whereas DC’s roster are inspirational; whilst not quite as consistently black and white as that, I felt myself drawn more often than not towards DC’s God-like characters (and Batman. Everybody loves Batman.)
What comicbook issue or story I would pick up in next month’s pull list only ever came down to two determining factors: a) which characters I liked and had invested time in already; and b) what writer was working on a project. Cue my interest developing in Fantastic Four when, after some limited experience with their place in the Ultimates Universe via other titles, a friend foisted upon me the first trade paper back of the run by the immensely talented writer Jonathan Hickman. It was… difficult. Not completely impenetrable, but certainly confusing and disorientating to begin with, but at the same time impressively ambitious. It wove mind-bendingly intricate plots and character arcs that I couldn’t even begin to conceive of how they would end, let alone how the next page or panel would continue.
When Josh Trank started to talk about being influenced by the work of David Cronenberg, I wasn’t sure how to react. A part of me was still reeling from the lamentable 2005 film and its sequel. Yet another part of me remained optimistic. A Cronenberg-esque Fantastic Four movie? Yep, that could work. Taking his inspiration from the Brian M Bendis / Mark Millar (yes that Kick-Ass guy) interpretation of the characters in their Ultimate Fantastic Four comics, it should have been perfectly acceptable. You don’t have to make the characters and story primarily for young children just because the group’s name is embarrassing to say out loud as an adult. I’ve seen Hickman successfully do more adult and darker stories in the comics. Twice, no less, if you include the few issues of Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates that I’d read. If any young aspirational director out there could do it justice, then naturally the guy behind one of 2012’s surprise hits, Chronicle, could be that guy?
Unfortunately, from the moment the project was announced, it hasn’t been without its lion share of controversy. With Trank allegedly trashing the set, upsetting his crew and causing headaches for the higher-ups at Fox, however true or false the rumours were, it permitted a swell of negativity about the movie in the public perception even before its trailer had made it to the screen. Throw in the ridiculous furore over casting an African American, Michael B Jordan, as the traditionally Caucasian hot-head character Johnny Storm, as if this was somehow an integral part of the character’s make up, and it just fanned the flames (get it? Because Johnny Storm says “flame on” when he sets himself on fire! It’s a joke! I’m trying to add humour to a super-serious film review… oh, never mind.)
Whilst many fans rejoiced at the progressiveness of casting the best actor for the role regardless of skin colour, a small section of narrow minded idiots couldn’t deal with it. “What if they decided to cast James Bond as a woman?” “What if they made Batman a disabled child?” “What if they cast a midget as Jack Reacher?” Yeah. Exactly. What if? If the end product is good enough, then who honestly has reason to care?
I suppose that’s what this review should eventually boil down to. Was this a good enough interpretation of not just the Human Torch, but of all the characters in general? From Johnny Storm’s adopted sister Susan, played by Kate Mara, to best buddies Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) played by British actor Jamie Bell, and (the ever-growing in popularity) Miles Teller as the limb stretching Mister Fantastic, Reed Richards, they just don’t gel as a unit at any point. Trank often breaks the group up into smaller teams to demonstrate how they are weaker apart. Tragedy befalls the group every time they don’t work as a cohesive line-up, especially when they ditch a key component of their group to navigate some inter-dimensional travel in what is for all intents and purposes an origins story to a sequel that may never happen based on initial critical reception.
It should be pointed out that this isn’t clearly explained within the film itself. For a movie that appears to pride itself on developing its characters, it appears to have bitten off more than it could chew. Rather than let characters organically drift in and out of the story as and when necessary, it seems as though Trank presumably accidentally casts them adrift for large portions of the runtime. For example, when Ben has done his bit with Reed, off he goes for a good 20 minutes. Not that Reed himself is immune to the chop as he all but disappears for what must be about 8-10 minutes of the film too. Hoping to see the fallout from Victor Von Doom’s shenanigans? Think again. At least the other characters get name checked during their absence. Poor old Doom isn’t even alluded to during his time out. I can only assume that the point is to drive home the “better together” message at the heart of the story. Alas, like large chunks of proceedings, it just wasn’t portrayed well.
Admittedly that may be slightly harsh as it’s hard enough sometimes to properly develop a couple of characters in a 100 minute movie, let alone six or more. Nevertheless, it’s still a problem. There was also little to no balance between characters’ emotions as they one second appeared to hold a certain opinion before careering off suddenly into a completely different lane like an out of control Toyota.
Frequently scenes had me scratching my head. Not because of its complex Warren Ellis inspired levels of scientific detail, but because of either how badly edited and/or written they were, which is only the more infuriating as in some areas there seems to be a lot of care of attention to detail. If you are at all wound up by little niggly pedantic problems often labelled as “goofs” on IMDb profiles, then this won’t be the movie for you as they were all too common an occurrence to be ignored.
However, like most moments throughout, there’s both good and bad to be found in every scene. The specific moment when the characters first gain their abilities is one of the more entertaining sections, generating as much tension as the film could muster. The effects looked stunning and played their part in increasing the excitement. In contrast, the set of circumstances leading these characters to this point are so incredibly contrived and lazy that it makes my defence of it so much more difficult. Even the events immediately afterwards show very little of the fallout and are nowhere near as cataclysmic as they should be. Reg E. Cathey is arguably the most well cast member of the entire bunch, but the hints at backstory between him and Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom are underplayed and superficial. Tim Blake Nelson plays the government representative like a pantomime villain, but even the friction there with his interactions with the quartet is not utilised enough.
All in all, it’s great that Trank has at least attempted to avoid the all too common pitfalls of the genre. It would be an exaggeration to describe the opening third as exciting, but I count it as a positive that matters were very rarely resolved with a short period of clobbering. The seams start to come away through a plodding and stiflingly slow middle section which seems to be heading nowhere. That is until Trank can resist no longer and relents with a grand (albeit generic) action-packed finale. In keeping with the rest of the film, even this climactic showdown struggles to have a bit of fun with itself. If anything, I had the distinct impression that Trank was almost apologetic in the necessity of including such a mass-appeasing scene, rendering it rushed and unsatisfying in its conclusion.
What makes Fantastic Four hard to hate, and why I can’t get on the “this movie is terrible” train that is steaming past me at 100mph, is that despite what I’ve said, I honestly didn’t sit there bored. Instead, I was mostly in a constant state of waiting for the expected to eventually happen. Then, when it did happen, it disappointingly didn’t elicit any emotion in me one way or the other. The movie was over, and so too is presumably the franchise until the inevitable soft-reboot.
It’s a big budget superhero movie that will go down in the annals of history as a project that never fulfilled its potential with a director who never quite found his rhythm. It so nearly broke the mould for its type, but obliged to pander to its typical audience, it never strayed too far from what was familiar and ended up underachieving.